The food business is an extremely personal one. No two dishes are the same; no two consumers alike. And, as any shopkeeper or restaurateur will tell you, as a nation of food-lovers Irish people are very particular about what they want.
Yet one thing the whole country has in common, it seems, is a desire to shop local.
In fact, in the most recent Bord Bia Periscope study carried out by Ipsos MRBI, 70pc of Irish people said they believed in the importance of buying local food. In 2005, that figure stood at just 50pc.
Last year's Good Food Ireland Business Insight Survey, meanwhile, found a similar proportion of people are consciously buying local food to support the economy. It seems the importance of local food is becoming inversely proportional to the march of globalisation. Food retailing has come full circle. People want to know where their food comes from - and the more local the better.
Our good idea is to tap into this by bringing local food to market while nurturing talent and supporting local food start-ups.
In Ireland, we have a highly innovative food sector from farmer through to processor, supplier and retailer. The ambition set for the sector by a cross-industry group called Harvest 2020 is being realised, with Ireland now recognised as a global leader in sustainable food and drink. A UCD study published last year showed that Ireland was the fifth most innovative agri-food sector in Europe. We can be number one. To do this, we need a food sector that is both the showcase of everything we export, as well as the nursery for food start-ups.
If start-ups are to be successful in exporting, they first need to be successful at home - and we're seeing that in recent statistics. Central Bank research shows that start-ups account for two-thirds of all new jobs in Ireland, while the National Policy Statement on Entrepreneurship shows that businesses that had started in the five years up to 2011 employed 93,000 people.
This job growth came during a very challenging period economically, underlining the innovate nature of these businesses. During the same period, longer-established enterprises lost 400,000 jobs.
All of the building blocks are in place to support an increased level of entrepreneurship. A comprehensive strategy set out in the Action Plan for Jobs, together with an ecosystem of investors, State agencies, service providers, multinationals and universities mean all the conditions are in place to increase the number of start-ups, ensure they are sustainable and allow them to scale, creating thousands of new jobs.
Perhaps more than any sector in Ireland, retail is uniquely placed to support entrepreneurial start-ups. Unlike other countries, Ireland has retained the independent retailer who sources locally, spends local and invests back into their community. This is absolutely on-trend for the consumer who is abandoning large out-of-town retail outlets.
Musgrave and its retailers in SuperValu, Centra and Daybreak is today at the forefront of this community-based retail model. In fact, Musgrave in Ireland has been keeping it local ever since our founders Stuart and Thomas started their business on Cork's North Main Street, rowing out to sell butter and sugar to ships in Cork Harbour, 140 years ago.
From these humble origins, Musgrave is now Ireland's largest employer outside the State itself, with annual sales of almost €5bn. We are responsible for over a quarter of the food sold in this country. And we want to use our leading position in the country's food landscape to support fledgling food businesses and help them grow sustainably.
Our Food Academy programme is a collaboration between our SuperValu brand, Bord Bia and Local Enterprise Offices where we bring community based food start-ups to market. Some 200 small food producers will secure retail listings worth €10m with SuperValu through the programme in 2015.
This allows these start-up food businesses to gain their first retail listings in their community, setting them on a long-term path to supplying our network of 222 SuperValu stores nationwide. For example, our Dublin stores are now stocking products from 22 artisan food businesses such as One-der and Everest Granola.
Another of the 200 successful small food producers in the Food Academy Programme is Cool Beans - a gourmet food company bidding to provide nutritious, tasty and convenient ready meals. It was set up by Isolde Johnson and Sarah O'Connor, from Tipperary and Cork respectively, who thought traditional beans needed a bit of spicing up.
Like so many of our Food Academy participants, Sarah and Isolde had the energy and drive to bring their concept to store shelves. Last October, 18 months after starting, they launched in five SuperValu stores in Dublin, adding 10 stores the following week, before introducing the product in their native Munster and ultimately securing a national listing in February.
This story is being replicated nationwide. The results of our investment in supporting food start-ups, through Food Academy, have been startling. Almost 85pc of our Food Academy participants expected to employ new staff over the next 12 months. Almost half of Food Academy participants, meanwhile, expect sales to increase by 50pc or more over the next 12 months, while seven out of 10 of the small food producers involved expect to launch new products during the next 12 months.
This programme is helping to create new jobs and business opportunities nationwide, particularly in rural Ireland. Through my work on the CEDRA Advisory Group, which is all about energising Ireland's rural economy, I intend to work with members to examine how food businesses and community retail can help in supporting local economies in Ireland's regions. Without programmes such as these, without the support and mentoring they provide, the challenges encountered by small food companies - already formidable - can sometimes seem insurmountable. With help, they can become thriving entrepreneurs forming the backbone of their communities as well as having the opportunity to scale and grow in export markets.
This is a model we believe can extend beyond the food sector to support start-ups in other growth sectors of the economy, including technology and pharma. High-impact start-ups are intrinsically linked to regional economic recovery. Some 70pc of people working in the private sector are employed by SMEs and more than 25pc of all people working in the private sector are employed in a micro-business with fewer than 10 staff.
As these businesses scale, they create employment and can have significant impacts in the communities where they locate. We are in a time of renewed opportunity and large business must provide mentorship and collaborate with start-ups to support their expansion, develop Ireland's skills base, create employment and share opportunity. Recent times would suggest no one - large or small - can afford to go it alone.
As a new Ireland emerges from economic downturn we should focus on what we do best to rebuild vibrant, healthy communities and to create jobs. In Ireland the food chain accounts for one in six of all jobs and also accounts for more SMEs than any other sector. Growing our highly innovative food sector through developing talent and supporting start-ups will build the economic and social sustainability of communities, both urban and rural. However, such an approach takes time and patience, foregoing some benefit today for a greater return in the future as small food companies eventually scale and grow.
Thankfully, that's something we know a bit about. Remaining a family business has helped Musgrave take a long-term view based on trusted relationships with our retail partners in SuperValu, Centra and Daybreak who, like us, are family businesses.
We think long-term sustainability - not short-term profit - and operate on the basis of mutually beneficial relationships. This allows us to not only propose ideas such as supporting food start-ups, but to also deliver on them.
Chris Martin is CEO of Musgrave Group, Ireland's leading retail and food service wholesaler
Sunday Indo Business